"That's a relief, I must say."
Drawing up one leg, Ian rested his wrist on his knee and turned to regard her with frank curiosity. "Since when do debutantes include rooting around in the dirt among their preferred entertainments?"
"I am no longer a debutante," Elizabeth replied. When she realized he intended to continue waiting for some sort of explanation, she said quietly, "I'm told my grandfather on my mother's side was an amateur horticulturist, and perhaps I inherited my love of plants and flowers from him. The gardens at Havenhurst were his work. I've enlarged them and added some new species since."
Her face softened, and her magnificent eyes glowed like bright green jewels at the mention of Havenhurst. Against his better judgment Ian kept her talking about a subject that obviously meant something special to her. "What is Havenhurst?"
"My home," she said with a soft smile. "It's been in our family for seven centuries. The original earl built a castle on it, and it was so beautiful that fourteen different aggressors coveted it and laid siege to it, but no one could take it. The castle was razed centuries later by another ancestor who wished to build a mansion in the classic Greek style. Then the next six earls enhanced and enlarged and modernized it until it became the place it now is. Sometimes," she admitted, "it's a little overwhelming to know it's up to me to see that it is preserved."
"I'd think that responsibility falls to your uncle or your brother, not you."
"No, it's mine."
"How can it be yours?" he asked, curious that she would speak of the place as if it was everything in the world that mattered to her.
"Under the entailment Havenhurst must pass to the oldest SOD. If there is no son, it passes to the daughter, and through her, to her children. My uncle cannot inherit because he was younger than my father. I suppose that's why he never cared a snap for it and resents so bitterly the cost of its upkeep now."
"But you have a brother," Ian pointed out.
"Robert is my half-brother," Elizabeth said, so soothed by the view and by having come to grips with what had happened two years ago that she spoke to him quite freely. "My mother was widowed when she was but twenty-one, and Robert was a babe. She married my father after Robert was born. My father formally adopted him, but it doesn't change the entailment. Under the terms of the entailment the heir can sell the property outright, but ownership cannot be transferred to any relative. That was done to safeguard against one member or branch of the family coveting the property and exerting undue force on the heir to relinquish it. Something like that happened to one of my grandmothers in the fifteenth century, and that amendment was added to the entailment at her insistence many years later. Her daughter fell in love with a Welshman who was a blackguard," Elizabeth continued with a smile, "who coveted Havenhurst, not the daughter, and to keep him from getting it her parents had a final codicil added to the entailment."
"What was that?" Ian asked, drawn into the history she related with such entertaining skill.
"It states that if the heir is female, she cannot wed against her guardian's wishes. In theory it was to stop the females from falling prey to another obvious blackguard. It isn't always easy for a woman to hold her own property, you see."
Ian saw only that the beautiful girl who had daringly come to his defense in a roomful of men, who had kissed him with tender passion, now seemed to be passionately attached not to any man, but to a pile of stones instead. Two years ago he'd been furious when he discovered she was a countess, a shallow little debutante already betrothed-to some bloodless fop, no doubt-and merely looking about for someone more exciting to warm her bed. Now, however, he felt oddly uneasy that she hadn't married her fop. It was on the tip of his tongue to bluntly ask her why she had never married when she spoke again. "Scotland is different than I imagined it would be."
"In what way?" "More wild, more primitive. I know gentlemen keep hunting boxes here, but I rather thought they'd have the usual conveniences and servants. What was your home like?"
"Wild and primitive," Ian replied. While Elizabeth looked on in surprised confusion, he gathered up the remains of their snack and rolled to his feet with lithe agility. "You're in it," he added in a mocking voice.
"In what?" Elizabeth stood up, too.
"My home." Hot, embarrassed color stained Elizabeth's smooth cheeks as they faced each other. He stood there with his dark lair blowing in the breeze, his sternly handsome face tamped with nobility and pride, his muscular body emanating raw power, and she thought he seemed as rugged and vulnerable as the cliffs of his homeland. She opened her mouth, intending to apologize; instead, she inadvertently poke her private thoughts: "It suits you," she said softly. Beneath his impassive gaze Elizabeth stood perfectly still, refusing to blush or look away, her delicately beautiful face framed by a halo of golden hair tossing in the restless breeze-a dainty image of fragility standing before a man who dwarfed her. Light and darkness, fragility and strength, stubborn pride and iron resolve-two opposites in almost every way. Once their differences had drawn them together; now they separated them. They were both older, wiser and convinced they were strong enough to withstand and ignore the slow heat building between them on that grassy edge. "It doesn't suit you, however," he remarked mildly. His words pulled Elizabeth from the strange spell that had seemed to enclose them. "No," she agreed without rancor, knowing what a hothouse flower she must seem with her impractical gowns and fragile slippers. Bending down, Elizabeth folded the blanket while Ian vent into the house and began gathering the guns so that he could clean and check them before hunting tomorrow. Elizabeth watched him removing the guns from the rack above the mantel, and she glanced at the letter she'd begun to Alexandra. There was no way to post it until she went home, so there was no reason to finish it quickly. On the other hand, there was little else to do, so she sat down and began writing. In the midst of her letter a gun exploded outside, and she half rose in nervous surprise. Wondering what he'd shot so close to the house, she walked to the open door and looked outside, watching as he loaded the pistol that had been lying In the table yesterday. He raised it, aiming at some unknown target, and fired. Again he loaded and fired, until curiosity made her step outside, squinting to see what, if anything, he had hit.
From the comer of his eye Ian glimpsed a slight flash of peach gown and turned.